This year’s late ice-outs and rainy, cold weather have put a damper on Minnesota’s boating culture, giving boaters, anglers and marinas a severe case of whiplash after last spring’s unusual warmth.
In 2012, Minnesotans took to the water in March. In 2013, they’ve been trickling in.
“I haven’t started my engine yet this year and I’m sure I’m one of hundreds of people doing the same thing,” said Tommy Drummonds of Deephaven as his pontoon sat idle on Lake Minnetonka.
New boat registrations in 2013 have slipped by nearly 4,000 compared with this time last year (although they are up from 2011). In addition, about 120,000 fewer fishing licenses have been issued this year than in 2012, a 17 percent decline. That has translated into a $2.7 million revenue drop for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Rising waters have prompted all three Twin Cities locks on the Mississippi River to close to boat traffic this week and caused the DNR to issue no-wake zones on the St. Croix River.
With an estimated 2.3 million boaters and the most boats per capita in the nation, Minnesota relies heavily on boating. The drop-off in traffic this year is especially striking, given last summer’s big bump in activity.
“We’ve been affected dramatically,” said Drummonds, who owns Tommy’s Tonka Trolley in Excelsior and rents out paddleboards and kayaks when he isn’t selling ice cream. “Last year was a gift.”
On Friday, Drummonds was booked for rentals, but despite some sunshine, he had to cancel them all because of high winds that created whitecaps on Minnetonka; he lost an estimated $500.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It all kind of irons out.”
The decrease in boating traffic may have contributed to the lower toll in water fatalities at the start of this season. For the first time since 2004, none were reported across the state before Memorial Day weekend.
In June, however, there have been six boating deaths, bringing 2013 past 2012, when there were four fatalities at this point.
Kara Owens, boat and water safety coordinator at the DNR, cautioned that lakes and rivers across the state are more dangerous this year because of the late water warm-up and, now, the high water and extra debris in rivers.
Last year, Shanon Whiteside of Maple Grove and her family first took their boat out on Minnetonka in March and were usually on the water twice a week.
This year, Friday was their first outing.
“It’s crazy late,” Whiteside said. “It just hasn’t looked like a good time to go out. Even this is a bit chilly.”
Anglers put off, too
The cold and rainy weather has even steered avid anglers like Tom Olson of Minnetonka away from the lake. He missed last month’s fishing opener.
On Friday, he took his boat out on Grays Bay for the first time this year — the latest ever. He was the only boater leaving the lake late Friday afternoon.
“For a Friday evening in June, you usually can’t get into this parking lot it’s so packed,” he said. “Last year, we were kind of spoiled. [This year] it just hasn’t felt like boating weather but hopefully it turns around.”
That’s what boat marinas and rental companies are hoping for, too, especially with next week’s July 4th holiday and sun in the forecast.
“When the sun comes out, the phone starts ringing,” said Bill Miller at Great River Boat Rental in Hastings, which rents boats on the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. “We expect our business to return to normal volumes.”
The high water has prompted some rescheduling of rentals.
But, Miller said, Great River is sold out for the holiday, and he’s optimistic that July and August can salvage what has been a slow start.
“May was basically a lost month for us,” he said. But “we’re through the diciest part of the year in Minnesota.”